Circles and Calligrams

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Editor's info:
For Benoît Delbecq’s 9th and 10th releases on Songlines (counting collaborations and the co-led groups Kartet and Poolplayers), Circles and Calligrams and The Sixth Jump, the Paris-based pianist has recorded two slightly overlapping programs of his compositions, some new, some revisited. Returning to the solo piano after a remarkable piano duet with Andy Milne (Where is Pannonica?, 2009) and his initial solo disc Nu-turn (2003), and at the same time presenting his first trio release, Delbecq is offering a career summary of sorts while continuing to advance and refine his particular approach. Celebrated in France, and named “one of the avatars of the prepared piano” by Jazz Times, he has included jazz and improv greats from both Europe and North America among his groups and collaborators (Mark Helias, Mark Turner, Michael Moore, François Houle and Arve Henriksen, to name a few), and has performed regularly in Canada and the US in recent years, yet he’s still far too little known here.

No doubt part of the reason is that to really ‘get’ his music requires an openness to sonic experimentation as well as an appreciation for formal complexity and even a degree of abstraction (though not for their own sake). Given that, the pleasures of these records are many: a fantastic array of prepared sounds, turning hammers and strings into a percussion orchestra while not neglecting the conventional resources of a beautiful-sounding 92-key Bosendorfer, intense yet supple polyrhythmic improvisations built up in interlocking layers and cycles, which in the trio are woven together with the bass and drums, and a distinctive melodic/tonal sense that balances consonance and dissonance with the timbral shifts of the preparations in many intriguing ways. His work shows a deep connection with both the modern jazz piano lineage (Monk, Waldron, Ibrahim etc.) and elements of the classical avant-garde (particularly Cage, Messiaen and Ligeti), and combines these influences and others such as pygmy polyphony into a truly unique style. This is music that readily communicates on a physical and often an emotional level but reveals ever-more-subtle aspects as you get to know it.

Another notable feature of both records are the remixes, which present quite different sonic perspectives on the music making. Benoît and drummer/electronics wizard Steve Arguelles have been developing their artistic complicity for 20 years, in groups such as the Recyclers and Delbecq 5 – and for the last 13 years their duo Ambitronix, recently expanded into a new improvisational trio, Manasonics, with the addition of Nicolas Becker. Arguelles’ remixes of material from the trio multi-tracks examine the three instruments individually, with a kind of improvisational spirit, Benoît calls them “rather cinema-like, these sorts of elliptical narrations.” Becker is in fact a foley artist/sound supervisor/sound designer and composer for films – he and Benoît recently collaborated on the score of the Israeli-French co-production Lebanon, and Benoît calls his quietly spooky “Mille Nandie” remix “a trip of mental images that brings my music closer to film music. Every sound you hear comes from my piano itself, there is no other source added…it is a ‘bio’ remix so to speak.”

And the record titles? The Sixth Jump refers to a “radical storm” in his personal life, at the end of the sixth cycle of seven years (i.e. around his 42nd birthday), when he also had to compose music for his newly formed trio – the tune “Le sixieme saut” reflects this period of “emotional rape, which I needed to transform into a very quiet piece while remaining a little tragic – it is loaded with 7 years of my life.” Circles and Calligrams are the visual patterns that Benoît sketches with pen and paper at a certain stage in the conception of a new piece (“I am still in a sound dream-state”) – designs that help visualize ways of superimposing forms and building up ‘fabrics’ of various motifs. The solo record was in fact crafted as a performance set during a fellowship residency at the Civitella Ranieri Centre near Perugia. “These six weeks in Italy, alone in my studio at the top of a hill, were an important step in my life. About half the pieces are new. I couldn’t possibly produce a whole new set of tunes – the time that’s necessary to assimilate the concepts is very long, I’m very slow when it comes to learning new combinations even if they’re mine. So I also spent a lot of time revisiting older compositions – the idea being to arrive at the recording studio and forget myself in the playing.” Both records are beautifully engineered and mixed by Etienne Bultingaire, “whose ears delight me – he has a way of recording the piano which perfectly reveals the details, space and depth of the instrument.”

Watch a video of the making of Circles and Calligrams here.

Grand Prix International du Disque, Académie Charles Cros (jazz), 2010

Choc (*****), Jazzmagazine/Jazzman

Elu, Citizen Jazz

Selection of the month, So Jazz

“Eight years after Nu-turn Benoît Delbecq returns to solo piano for a new introspective traversal of his imaginary landscapes. If we find again all the components of his universe, at once dream-like and ultra-sensory (that very singular way of trapping his piano with small rhythmic cells both abstract and enchanted, that science of flux skillfully woven into fabrics both fluid and shifting) it’s a new purely pianistic élan that captures the attention — as if Delbecq had succeeded here in projecting himself into his sound with greater ‘body’, and in liberating energies in his playing that had only been hinted at before. This affirmation of the body is also found in The Sixth Jump, the first trio record of his career. Liberating himself completely from schematic approaches to form and idiom associated with that format, putting into practice an authentically egalitarian and organic conception of orchestral dynamics, Delbecq, without sacrificing any part of his poetics, wholeheartedly embraces dance, trance and song. As if wrapped round in the sophisticated and sensualist grooves of the Congolese Emile Biayenda’s vocalized drumming and clothed in the powerful lyricism of Avenel’s double bass, which carries in its ‘voice’ a whole mythology of modern jazz, Delbecq lets us hear in his skillfully destructured ritornellos everything that his music owes to Africa (Abdullah Ibrahim) and to the great masters of free jazz (Don Cherry, Steve Lacy). Great work.” — Stéphane Ollivier, Jazzmagazine (France)


Songlines (USA)
Benoit Delbecq
Circles and Calligrams
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